Matt Papa is as likely to quote G.K. Chesterton in casual conversation as he is to describe himself as a "weird dude." He is a delightful combination of gifted musician and songwriter, loving husband, father of three girls, and inquisitive theologian. And with all those roles and attributes, he remains ever-focused on a singular goal: help people see the beauty and glory of Jesus.
Even the title of Papa's latest album, Look & Live, indicates how his evangelistic desire is undergirded by a love of scripture. Who else would name an album after a strange passage in the book of Numbers? "In Numbers 21," Papa says, "God's people are in the wilderness, complaining and grumbling. God sends serpents to bite the people because of their disbelief.
They call out for mercy, and God says, 'Okay, I'll show you mercy,' but He does it in a strange way. He makes a pole for people to look at and live. Jesus lets us know the reason for that in John 3: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life."
Papa continues, bringing this remarkable story to the present day. "This album, and hopefully my life, is a call to every human being who is stuck in the muck of addiction, sin and selfishness, to lift up your head and to see that the only thing that can truly liberate you, the only thing that can truly captivate you...the beauty and glory of God."
Throughout the album, Papa explores the human struggle between idolatry and worship. The album opens and closes with philosophical bookends, with the Gospel illuminating the center. The first atmospheric piano notes of "All for Your Glory"commence the tale of creation, the fall of man, and, ultimately, God's victory and our enduring purpose. Papa masterfully composes grand precepts in dramatic and emotional terms. We ran and fell into darkness / But all the rage of our sin could not frustrate / Your dream of grace.
"The Ocean" follows, taking its chorus from a stunning quote by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards spoke of temporal, earthly enjoyments, such as our homes, friends, and family, and declared that they are but shadows. "The enjoyment of God is the substance," he wrote. "These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean." The concept has had a profound influence on Papa's view of the world. "The quote is magnificent in that it both destroys idolatry and it enhances worship. Christianity is not escapism. We see our Creator through the world. We don't run from the world, we look through it to its source."
The opening third of the album wraps with lead single," Show Me Your Glory."Papa calls this the greatest prayer that exists. "It's what you pray when you begin loving God, not using God anymore. You're not asking God to bless you, give you stuff like He's some genie. It's the prayer that breaks idolatry and addiction in your life."
Immediately following, the album turns to a powerful arc of songs telling the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. "The place where we see God at his most beautiful moment," Papa notes, "where we see the attributes of God shining in their most blazing form, is at the cross. That's the ultimate place where your idols are eclipsed. When you set your face toward the cross, you see the overwhelming beauty of Christ there. Going from "Show Me Your Glory," right into "Gethsemane", the light is breaking through, you're starting to see the beauty of His grace and His love getting brighter and brighter. The hope is that the listener would get their idols eclipsed by seeing the beauty of what Christ has done."
Right in the middle of the gospel heart of Look & Live rests a remarkable modern hymn called "Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery," poised to bring potent worship to congregations, particularly as a part of Easter celebrations. Papa has written hymns in the past, though many will call this his finest moment. Lines like, See the true and better Adam come to save the hell-bound man / Christ the great and sure fulfillment of the law, in Him we stand, would fit in any hymnal, but the musical setting will resonate with those accustomed to modern worship.
The album's production is handled by Stu G, guitarist for the iconic band Delirious?, who brings creativity, range, and, not surprisingly, a little dose of scorching guitar. A quiet, melodic opening gives way to thunderous drums on the dramatic "Song of An Angel," written from the perspective of an angel in heaven upon the occasion of the post-crucifixion arrival of Jesus. Shai Linne fans will note his guest appearance on the driving "More," with deft rhymes highlighting a theme of God's transcendence above all the so-called "treasures" in this world. And certain moments in "Made For You," noted for its vibrant piano and impressive vocal range, just might remind listeners of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Papa is at his most personal on the penultimate track and first radio single, "A Pilgrim's Progress (Keep Runnin')." The song is sweet motivation for anyone feeling the drag of the world's demands or the dagger of depression. It was written at a time when Papa himself was overwhelmed.
"The song arrived very late in the process of making the album. I was flying up to Nashville to record the rest of the vocals. This was January, and we just had our third child. Life felt as crazy as it had ever felt. The transition for us from 2 to 3 kids felt like a punch in the gut. I admit I have an artist's temperament -- my highs are high and my lows are low -- so I've struggled over the years with depression. I was praying as I was flying up to Nashville and I kept hearing that phrase, 'Keep running!' I felt like the Lord was saying it, I felt like the cloud of witnesses was saying it, just put your head down and keep fighting. I had the overwhelming sense that I needed to finish the song and record it, and I worked hard over the next couple of weeks to finish it. I don't know why, but my prayer for that song is this; I really want people who are contemplating suicide or battling depression to hear this song, and I pray that the Lord would use that in their lives to encourage them to keep going...to keep looking to Christ."
The album closes with an anthem of declaration, "All I Want is You." Thematically, idolatry has been eclipsed by the glory of God, made present by the victory of the cross, and we're left with an all-consuming desire for the all-sufficient Creator.
"My hope," shares Papa, "is that as you journey through the album looking toward the glory of God, your heart is satisfied and you end up in that place where you don't need the world anymore. You're not leeching onto the world to survive. You're totally content, at peace, resting in your desire for God. That's where I hope people end up."
Look & Live really is, then, a spiritual journey. Guided by thoughtful and insightful lyrics, set to sweeping melodies, we turn our hearts toward a resting place of glorious contentment. We look upon the One we should have been focused on all along, and we finally live.